The sixties: it wasn't just "The Age of Aquarius," it was truly an age of reform and revolution. Mainstream politicians launched a multifaceted campaign to eliminate poverty, expand government services to the elderly, and increase educational opportunities for people of all ages. Over the course of the decade, Congress passed historic legislation transforming the role of government in American society. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Job Corps, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation were all part of this legislative record.
But reform was not confined to the Washington political establishment. Student activists rallied to fight racial segregation and end the Vietnam War. Much of this protest was peaceful; students cited the examples set by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in seeking nonviolent social change. But some activists lost confidence in nonviolent methods as the decade passed and the war in Vietnam continued. Radical factions like the Weathermen argued that the war abroad and racial and class injustices at home required more aggressive responses. By the end of the decade, these militants had gone underground to wage a campaign of targeted bombings against government institutions linked to the war and “oppression.”
Other reformers and revolutionaries eschewed politics for cultural and social change. These prophets of the counterculture sought to transform the ways Americans worked, lived, and loved. They denounced materialism and capitalism; they encouraged self-exploration and self-fulfillment and offered wide-ranging prescriptions toward these ends—drug use, sexual experimentation, communal living, and non-western religions.
At the same time, popular stereotypes notwithstanding, the sixties was not a decade that belonged entirely to the counterculture and to left/liberal political movements. The modern conservative movement that later came to dominate American politics through the Reagan and Bush Eras was born in (and of) the 1960s as well.
Why Should I Care?
The 1960s was a decade of slogans. Students chanted “Stop the War.” “Hippies” extended an invitation to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” John Kennedy urged Americans to explore a “New Frontier,” and Lyndon Johnson pledged to build a “Great Society.”
It’s easy to list the catchy phrases coined by protestors and politicians. It's harder to recreate the vision and sense of opportunity that inspired these slogans. During the 1960s, people of all ages and backgrounds became convinced that America could build a new society—a nation in which no one was poor or exploited, everyone could be educated, and the sins of America’s past, like racism, would be redressed.
Not everyone nursed the same vision; some pushed their critique of contemporary society further than others. And, somewhat ironically, people who shared common goals on some issues found themselves violently at odds over other social questions. Still, there is something striking in the fact that a New England blueblood and a hard-nosed Texan, thousands of idealistic college students, and just as many young countercultural revolutionaries would share the same basic belief that America was on the edge of a new, more perfect time in history.
So, what exactly brought them together—and what drove them apart?
Why the 1960s—why not sooner or later?
And what did all this idealism and vision produce? Did it leave us anything more than a bunch of slogans?